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Early voting and a split field mean Sanders should be clear odds-on for the Dem nomination

February 22nd, 2020

Only a health scare is likely to stop him now

Inevitably, all eyes on the race for the Democrat nomination are trained today on Nevada, which today becomes the third state to vote in the contest. Except it doesn’t.

There’s still far too much attention paid in the media to ‘election day’ itself, which is now a highly misleading concept. Early voting has transformed how elections are conducted by both the public and political parties / candidates, (both here and in the US) meaning that while election day wraps up the story and is still the most important day in the process, a huge amount has already happened.

Early voting was open in Nevada from last Saturday through to Tuesday and reports are that around 75,000 people took the opportunity to participate that way (although already there seem to be problems with unsigned – and hence invalid – forms); a figure which is only just short of the 2016 total and could well propel this year’s overall number past the record from 2008 of 120,000 or so.

If it is right that half or more of Nevada’s vote is already in the bag then that means both that the polls should be more reliable and also that the effects of Wednesday’s debate counts for a lot less. Obviously, that doesn’t matter as far as Nevada is concerned for Bloomberg, who’s not contesting it, but it does matter for Elizabeth Warren, who put up a strong showing which can’t be reflected in the votes already cast.

Unfortunately, any certainty we can build up from these early votes then dissipates with the detail. The convoluted nature of caucuses and the 15% rule could both play havoc with reallocations and with delegate awards. Sanders looks well clear but Biden, Buttigieg and Warren are polling in the mid-teens, with Steyer and Klobuchar in low double-digits. It would only take small errors in the polling or small genuine movements in opinion to change a candidate’s fortune from a wipeout to a very comfortable second place – or vice versa. Equally, Sanders could gain anything from around 40-70% of delegates depending on how many of his rivals miss the cut.

But Nevada is not the only state voting at the moment. Early voting is currently underway in most of the other Super Tuesday states and other ones beyond, ranging from tiny North Dakota (14 delegates), through to mighty Texas (228) and California (415). Already, more than 1.3m people have voted in the California primary and Wednesday’s debate will almost certainly have had more effect there and the other Super Tuesday states than in Nevada.

Indeed, I cannot stress strongly enough how front-loaded this primary season is. After a year of shadow boxing, more than half the delegates then get awarded in the space of a fortnight. Super Tuesday is only ten days away and will determine 34% of all pledged delegates but after that, another 9% will be assigned in the seven contests the week after, and then 14.5% more the week after that.

And that’s where the odd nature of this campaign field matters. Before we began, I thought that there was a strong chance that for the first time in decades, this year would see a contested convention. I still think there’s a reasonable chance of that but it’s dropping for the unusual reason that there are so many candidates left in.

Normally, Iowa and New Hampshire see of not just the also-rans but also some candidates who harboured serious ambitions for the White House. In the 2016 GOP race, twelve candidates contested Iowa – a similar number to the Democrat field this year – but half withdrew before the third state (South Carolina) and by Super Tuesday there were effectively only four serious contenders. That thinning out simply hasn’t happened this time, with the result that votes will be very split; a consequence enhanced by the scale of early voting.

That plays very much into Sanders’ hands. If there were, say, four candidates with a split of 35-25-20-20 then all of them would be likely to get some return from most states. The 15% threshold would probably still eat away at the back-markers but not severely.

By contrast, the current national split (using the RCP average) of 29-17-15-12-10-7-others means that there’s a good chance that Sanders clears the threshold nearly everywhere, while the rest struggle nearly everywhere. That could hugely boost his delegate share, way beyond what you’d expect from notionally proportionate allocations.

Furthermore, it’s not obvious that Nevada or South Carolina will clear the field much further. Biden will be hoping his firewall state in the South delivers him a win, and current polling suggests that’s still realistic; Warren will be hopeful her debate performance has re-energised her campaign; Buttigieg could be on for a second place in Nevada, while Steyer can hope for something similar in S Carolina; Bloomberg and Sanders are clearly in to stay for now. Klobuchar looks most vulnerable but even her cause is hardly hopeless.

Nevada is, of course, known for gambling and there’s a good chance the dice will fall badly for one or even two candidates who’ll fail both on the raw numbers and on expectations and might, as a result, call it quits, especially if South Carolina looks unpromising. But it’s not certain.

Either way, the likelihood now is that most if not all of the current field will be in play in the contests for three-fifths of the delegates. I don’t see any real reason other than a potential new health scare why Sanders should tail off over the next month. On the contrary: despite Warren’s strong debate performance, if she can’t translate that into votes – and the timing is unfortunate for Nevada – then she could be the one to pull out, which would likely benefit Sanders more than anyone.

Put simply, the path for anyone else to the nomination looks extremely difficult. Even if Sanders can’t reach 50% by the convention, he’d go in with such a big lead that there’s no way it could be overturned. I think the markets are underrating the importance of (and interaction between) early voting, the wide field and the delegate allocation threshold. I’d personally make Sanders comfortably odds-on, maybe even as short as 1/2. That does give value for the nomination, though it’s not very exciting. With Trump now no better than 8/13 – which is too short, even though he should be odds-on – the 7/2 available for Sanders to take the White House may be the value shot.

David Herdson